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  • Gladys Childs

Bewildered by options? A guide to appreciating the dizzy array of Bible versions.

Olivia from Sacramento messaged this to my Instagram account: ....what is it with all the translations anyway? Isn't that just people making up their versions of the Bible?

You probably do not struggle with this question if you are a church member. However, did you know that many people outside of the church think the Bible is made up because of the various translations and versions and because of what they were taught in school growing up? It is a good idea to have a basic understanding of why we have different translations and versions, so if you encounter a person who struggles with this and doubts God, you can help them overcome this.

In some part, mistrust of the Biblical text relates to the history lessons we received growing up. In these lessons, we learned about various kings, queens, and popes who used the Bible as a weapon, kept it from being understood by the masses, beheaded people who made translations every day people could read, and the list keeps going. Like now, circumstances do not always end well whenever totalitarian individuals govern something. (Not all kings, queens, and popes were or are this way, just talking about the ones who were.) Unfortunately, in history, we have much documentation about individuals who abused their power and used the Bible, God, faith, and the church in detrimental manners.

I have said in a previous blog that who God is and how God acts is not who people are and how people act. You will read that phrase from me because it applies to many situations, including this one. All vocations have individuals that use and abuse their power: doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, and plumbers -- basically, every vocation has its rotten eggs. However, after a bad experience, we do not stop going to the doctor or calling a plumber when we need one; we select a new one. Yet, when people have a terrible faith-related experience or make a negative association with anything related to faith, it stops them from any further involvement. So, when people in power misuse the Bible, it is questioned.

With all that in mind, to answer Olivia's question (in a simplified and short manner), we must look at the difference between bible translations and bible versions. Translations relate to the language in which the Bible is written. The Wycliffe Bible Alliance reports the Bible has been translated (whole or partially) into over 3,300 different languages. Books of all genres are translated into various languages so people around the globe can read them. So, why would it be different from the Bible? Just like any other book, for people to read it, the Bible has to be in a language they understand.

Versions refer to the particular form of the same type of thing, in this instance, the Bible. So, there are numerous versions under the larger umbrella of the English translation. We have numerous versions because there are different philosophies on the best way to translate the bible from ancient manuscripts into English.

The two main philosophies are formal and functional equivalence. Formal equivalence aims for a literal, word-for-word translation such as the King James Version (KJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV). Functional equivalence focuses on thought-for-thought translation, making the text easier to understand and read, such as New Living Translation (NLT) and the New International Version (NIV).

We also have numerous versions because language changes over time. If we could transport back in time to 1770 in the United States, they would be speaking English; but we would have some difficulty in understanding them and they in understanding us. Which is normal and to be expected. So, apply that concept to the Bible, and do you want an English version from 1770 or one from 2000? I would take a version from 2000.

So, you may think that all of what has been said is good and well, but how do we know if a version is good? That is why we have biblical scholars. Biblical scholars are used in translating Bibles because the groups authorizing and paying for the translation want it recognized and accepted as legitimate. Also, once a version is published, it is highly critiqued by scholars, universities, and religious groups not involved in the development process. They keep everything in check and call out any issues with a version.

Olivia, I hope this helped to answer your question and give you more confidence in the Bible.

My prayer for you and others who struggle with trusting the Bible: "May God keep leading you to seek answers to your questions. God is not troubled by your questioning. Trust and believe in the God who inspirited the scriptures and desires to have a deep and abiding relationship with you. In Christ's name, Amen."

If you have a question about God, faith, or the church and cannot get a straight answer, scroll to the top of the page and hover over "Blog," you will see the "Question of the Week Submission" tab pop up. Click on it and submit your question.

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Photo credit: Photo by marianne bos on Unsplash

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